Monday, May 4, 2020

Anthony Lakes Loop

Lower Hoffer Lake with Lees Peak and the Lakes Lookout
9.5 miles, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Anthony Lakes resort fee required

The Elkhorn Mountains are an Oregon secret and hiking the Anthony Lakes Loop is the easiest and most accessible way to see this landscape of granite and lakes. Located in far eastern Oregon, this range is a five hour drive from Portland and three hours from Boise, making it a much quieter destination than any of the Cascade volcanoes or even the nearby Wallowas. But the scenery along the Anthony Lakes Loop is excellent- craggy granite peaks, numerous mirror-like lakes, and peaceful meadows- making this a worthwhile stop for hikers visiting the area. The fact that all this scenery can be accessed from an easy drive on a paved road makes it all the more shocking that you're likely to enjoy this landscape in reasonable solitude.

The hike makes a loop around a cluster of granite peaks at the northern end of the Elkhorn Range, visiting numerous lakes along the way. A short but steep detour adds on the summit of the Lakes Lookout, a spectacular summit viewpoint over the Elkhorns and eastern Oregon; skipping this side trip makes the hike even easier but misses out on a key hike highlight.

I hiked the Anthony Lakes Loop at the tail end of a September trip to the Wallowas and Hells Canyon. I had little knowledge of the Elkhorn Mountains before my trip began: I had apparently missed the 9000-foot peaks to the right during my previous drive down I-84 on way to Boise and Yellowstone. I had not even planned on visiting this range when I left Seattle, but I spotted the Elkhorns from atop Eagle Cap when I was in the Wallowas and thought that its peaks looked impressive, so I decided to spend a day of my trip hiking here instead of going to Ice Lake in the Wallowas. As this hike is a long way from any city, I'll give directions coming from La Grande, Oregon. I took I-84 south from La Grande, crossing a pass over the Blue Mountains and descending into Powder Valley. I took exit 285 for North Powder, turning left onto River Lane to head west after coming off the ramp. I followed River Lane west through farmland as it became Ellis Road heading south, and then I made a right when Ellis Road ended by intersecting the Anthony Lakes Highway. I took the Anthony Lakes Highway west as it ascended into the Elkhorns, with views out to Baker Valley and the Wallowas. I continued along this road until making the left turn into the Anthony Lake Campground; when the roads to the day use area and campground diverged, I took the right fork for the day use area, then drove counterclockwise around the lake until coming to the trailhead parking lot on the southwest corner of Anthony Lake.

Gunsight Mountain, Lees Peak, and the Lakes Lookout rise above Anthony Lake
From the parking area, I headed out on the lakeside trail, which was essentially a continuation of the road. After crossing Parker Creek, the lakeside trail quickly arrived at a junction with the trail to Hoffer Lakes. I continued straight on Trail 1600, which continued wrapping counterclockwise around Anthony Lake with occasional views of its marshy and forested shores.

After about a quarter mile, the dirt trail began approaching the Anthony Lakes Campground. There's no day use parking here, so I would only advise starting your hike here if you're camping; this was also one of the few crowded areas on the hike as I walked by a few trucks parked on the trail as families picnicked by the lake. Arriving at a proper road in the campground, I turned right and quickly picked up the Black Lake Trail, which led back into the forest and peace and quiet.

Anthony Lake
A short, hundred-yard flat walk through the forest brought me to Lilypad Lake, the second lake of the hike. Lilypad Lake was more or less a marsh-fringed pond dotted with its namesake plant, but it was a pretty scene with Gunsight Mountain and the Lakes Lookout rising behind it.

Lilypad Lake
After leaving Lilypad Lake, the trail began a very gentle ascent into the forest, intersecting with the Elkhorn Crest Trail after a quarter mile. I turned right at the intersection to head south along this trail. The Elkhorn Crest Trail is a 23-mile trail that threads through the tallest peaks of the Elkhorns, starting from the Anthony Lakes area in the north. The most spectacular stretch of the hike is supposedly its southern end, where it approaches Twin Lakes and Rock Creek Butte, the highest peak of the range, but poorly maintained gravel roads make that end of the range substantially less accessible than the tamer but still pretty Anthony Lakes area.

The Elkhorn Crest Trail immediately came to a junction with the trail to Black Lake. I took this short detour, which had a short initial ascent before flattening out and following Black Lake's outlet stream through marshes and meadows to the lake itself. Gunsight Mountain rose imposingly over the lake.

Black Lake
From the lake, I backtracked to the Elkhorn Crest Trail and continued to follow it south. From here, the trail began one of the two major ascents of the hike. The uphill grade was gentle as the trail climbed out of the basin holding Black Lake and crossed a low saddle to enter the Antone Creek watershed. The uphill was slow but steady as the trail cut across the slopes on the west side of the valley in a landscape with interspersed areas of forest cover and open granite, with occasional views to the granite spires of Angell Peak ahead and across to the bulky mass of Van Patton Peak.

The ascent to 8200-foot Angell Pass from the Black Lake Trail Junction at 7300 feet was spread out over 2 miles; the final approach to Angell Pass was quite scenic, with lots of exposed granite and many great views as the trail climbed to tree-thinning elevations.

Elkhorn Crest Trail to Angell Pass
The views from the trail here encompassed stately Van Patton Butte across the valley, which rose above an unnamed lake and pretty meadow below; in the distance, the ridges of the Blue Mountains and the Wallowas rose above Baker and Grande Ronde Valleys.

Van Patton Peak view near Angell Pass
At Angell Pass, the trail entered the North Fork John Day Wilderness, marking the transition from the Powder River watershed (which drains into the Snake near Hells Canyon) and the John Day River watershed (which drains into the Columbia just upstream of the Columbia River Gorge). From the pass, there was a partial view through a saddle of the Wallowa Mountains across Baker Valley.

A peek of the Wallowas from Angell Pass
For hikers skipping the Lakes Lookout, Angell Pass is the high point of the hike and the end of the hike's only substantial uphill. The pass opened up views to the south and west and as the trail contoured around the west side of the peak bounding the pass from the east. An unnamed lake and meadow were visible below at the headwaters of the Crawfish Creek basin and an impressive granite wall formed by Angell Peak, Lees Peak, and the Lakes Lookout lay to the west.

View south of the Elkhorn Mountains from Angell Pass
A half mile of wandering south on the Elkhorn Crest Trail brought me to Dutch Flat Saddle, a four-way trail junction. The Elkhorn Crest Trail continued south for its distant rendevous with the highest Elkhorn peaks; the Dutch Flat Creek and the Crawfish Basin trails descended to the east and west (left and right), respectively, leading down into the valleys bellow the saddle. While the loop continues clockwise by the Crawfish Basin Trail, I took a short detour of about fifty steps down the Dutch Flat Creek Trail, which gave me a pretty view of Dutch Flat Lake below.

Dutch Flat Lake from Dutch Flat Saddle
Backtracking to Dutch Flat Saddle, this time I headed off on the Crawfish Basin Trail. The upper parts of this trail provided views of granite peaks along with large Crawfish Meadow in the distance.

Lees Peak from the Crawfish Basin Trail at Dutch Flat Saddle
Unfortuately, after descending about 400 feet via switchbacks, the Crawfish Basin Trail became one of the more boring parts of the hike, as the trail stayed in the forest while circling around Angell Peak, Lees Peak, and the Lakes Lookout. The trail stayed relatively level at the bottom of the descent, remaining a couple hundred feet above Crawfish Meadow at the bottom of the valley. At points, there were partial views of the both the peaks to the north and the meadows to the south, but there were no wide open views.

Views did open up a bit to the west as the trail made a sharp turn to wrap around to the west side of the Angell-Lees-Lakes Lookout massif. The trail made an ascent of about 200 feet here as it climbed back up to the north ridge of the Lakes Lookout. The Crawfish Basin Trail ended at a dirt road, 2.5 miles from Dutch Flat Saddle and about 6 miles into the hike; I continued along this dirt road another hundred yards to a small circle in the road. From here, the Lakes Lookout Trail led south towards the top of the ridge; if you're looking for an easier hike, you can skip this detour, otherwise this spur trail is well worth it for the hike's best views.

I followed the Lakes Lookout Trail uphill for two-thirds of a mile to the summit. This was the steepest climb of the hike, ascending to the 8522-foot peak of one of the key summits in the Anthony Lakes area. Views improved progressively through the climb, especially to the west and south; at the end of the climb, some short switchbacks and a bit of rock scrambling put me atop the eastern summit of the mountain's two high points.

The views from the summit were excellent: I could see many of the lakes visited on the hike, including Anthony, Lilypad, and Hoffer Lakes, as well as Gunsight Mountain, Angell Peak, and Lees Peak, which along with the Lakes Lookout made up the granite block that I had been circling. Van Patton Peak rose just beond. The forested Blue Mountains stretched on to the north, forming one side of Baker and Grande Ronde Valleys, which were bound on the other side by the distant Wallowas.

Anthony, Lilypad, and Hoffer Lakes with Gunsight and Van Patton from the Lakes Lookout
The crest of the Elkhorn Mountains crowded the southeast horizon. Crawfish Meadow lay to the south, with Crawfish Lake visible a little further to the west. The low, forested peaks of the Blue Mountains stretched to the horizon.

View south along the Elkhorn Crest
Crawfish Meadow from the Lakes Lookout
View west from the Lakes Lookout
I ran into the first other hiker that day since Angell Pass at the summit of the Lakes Lookout. A local from Baker City, he gave me an odd look when I told him that I had come from Seattle.

After soaking in the views, I descended back to the forest service road. I followed it north along a ridge, which opened up nice views of Van Patton, Gunsight, and Angell Peaks. Hoffer Lakes and Anthony Lake were still vislbe, along with some pretty meadows in the lakes basin.

Gunsight Mountain from the descent to Hoffer Lakes
After a third of a mile, the road reached a four-way junction at a saddle in the ridge. I took the right fork, which descended towards the lakes basin. While the road cut very long switchbacks down the slope, I took a shortcut trail to shave a hundred yards or so off the hike. This was actually a ski trail: the other side of the ridge is the Anthony Lakes Ski Resort, the largest ski resort in northeast Oregon and the primary reason there's such easy paved access to the trailhead for this hike. At the end of the second switchback, the Hoffer Lakes Trail broke off to the right and headed south into the forest. This trail was very pretty, tracing the edge of a meadow and providing nice views of Lees Peak and the Lakes Lookout. In a half mile, it led to placid Lower Hoffer Lake, following the lakeshore to provide reflections first of Gunsight Mountain and then of Lees Peak and the Lakes Lookout. The relatively open granite on the lower slopes of Lees Peak were especially scenic.

Lower Hoffer Lake with Lees Peak and the Lakes Lookout
At the intersection with the trail to Upper Hoffer Lake, I turned right and followed the short spur to the larger upper lake. This calm lake was nestled at the foot of Lees Peak, with the granite slabs of its north ridge reaching down to the lakeshore. The two Hoffer Lakes were my favorite lakes of the hike and they're clearly the favorites of many locals as well: after a quiet hike for much of the day, I ran into multiple groups here.

Upper Hoffer Lake at the foot of Lees Peak
Returning to Lower Hoffer Lake, I followed the Hoffer Lakes Trail downhill back towards Anthony Lake. The final half mile descended alongside Parker Creek to return to lakeside trail along Anthony Lake; turning left at this final junction, I returned to the trailhead shortly afterwards. On my way back to I-84, I stopped at the picnic area on the north side of Anthony Lake to enjoy the rays of the late day sun on Gunsight and Lees Peak reflected in the lake.

Sunset at Anthony Lake
I came on a weekend but ran into just a few other hikers all day: two groups on the way to Angell Pass who were hiking the Elkhorn Crest Trail, another solitary hiker atop the Lakes Lookout, and then a couple more groups of hikers on the very last stretch of the hike at Hoffer Lakes, which is itself a more popular short hike. While not as dramatic as the nearby Wallowas, the scenery along the hike was nonetheless beautiful and enjoyable. Few hikes can offer pretty mountain lakes and views on a reasonably easy hike accessed from a paved, easy-driving road without being overrun.

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